Jury Finds for 12-Year-Old In Closely Watched Hugging Case

Generic legal document—do not imitate

Well, some of us have been watching it closely, anyway, although it does not seem to have been in the news until recently. That’s too bad, because anytime somebody sues a child that’s something I’d like to know about.

Even better if the child wins.

This is, or was, a New York case in which a 54-year-old woman sued her eight-year-old nephew for negligence, alleging that he acted unreasonably when he leaped into her arms after she showed up at his birthday party in 2011. According to the Westport News, the boy had just been given his first bicycle and was riding it around when his aunt showed up. “Auntie Jen! Auntie Jen!” he exclaimed—which is already unreasonable, because once is plenty—and ran toward her. “I remember him shouting, ‘Auntie Jen I love you,” Auntie Jen testified, “and there he was flying at me.” She said she tried to catch the boy but they tumbled to the ground. Auntie Jen broke her wrist in the fall, or maybe I should say that the defendant broke the plaintiff’s wrist by leaping upon her negligently, without warning, and with malice aforethought.

That, or something like it, is what she alleged when she sued her nephew for negligence two years later.

I was a little suspicious of this one, but this report actually links to the relevant court docket, and that does indeed show that the case was filed in March 2013. It was then continued a couple of times—once, the docket indicates, because “DEF 10 YEARS OLD AND WILL BE OUT OF STATE ALL SUMMER”—but once he got back, it was on.

The Westport News reported that “the boy, now 12 years old, appeared confused” as he sat with his father in the courtroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Of course, whether he was really confused or just putting on an act for the jury is something only he and his lawyer know for sure. But he might have been entitled to be a little confused.

Most jurisdictions have a statute providing that children under a certain age are not legally responsible for their actions. Exactly what that age is depends on the jurisdiction, of course. But according to this thing, which is not legally binding but is a reference document by the Connecticut State Judicial Branch on the “Torts of Minors in Connecticut,” Connecticut doesn’t have one of those statutes. Instead, it applies the “child of tender years” doctrine under which the child is not immune, but also recognizes he or she should be judged by what is “reasonable to expect of children of like age, intelligence and experience.” So, if that’s the law, then there’s no reason you couldn’t drag a kid into court and charge him with failing to act like a reasonable eight-year-old would have acted under the circumstances.

If the phrase “reasonable eight-year-old” strikes you as an oxymoron, you’ve probably hit on the reason why most people seem to think this case is ridiculous. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about here:

The injuries, losses and harms to the plaintiff were caused by the negligence and carelessness of the minor defendant in that a reasonable eight year old under those circumstances would know or should have known that a forceful greeting such as the one delivered by the defendant to the plaintiff could cause the harms and losses suffered by the plaintiff.

So allegeth the complaint, according to the report (emphasis added).

What were those harms and losses? Well, a broken wrist is significant, and was probably the bulk of the $127,000 Auntie Jen was seeking from the boy (or, more likely, from his dad and/or insurance company). But she also testified that the injury made her life more difficult because “I live in Manhattan in a third-floor walk-up … and we all know how crowded it is in Manhattan.” Okay, I guess it would be more difficult to carry things upstairs. Anything else?

“I was at a party recently, and it was difficult to hold my hors d’oeuvre plate.”

That’s the quote that made me suspicious, actually, because … what?

I’m guessing it also affected the jurors, which after 25 minutes of deliberation (which probably included time for lunch) they unanimously found in favor of the boySee generallyJury Decides Woman Who Sued 8-Year-Old Gets Nothing,” Westport Now (Oct. 13, 2015). (He was actually ten when she sued him, but whatever.)

There are more details in this NY Daily News piece, as well as a couple of what are basically “perp walk” photos. (Acting in moderation as always, the NYDN referred to the plaintiff as “the Auntie Christ.”) What legal arguments swayed the jury? One juror explained: “We just couldn’t find him, you know, liable for what happened.”

Well, I guess that is what they were asked to do.

Update: The plaintiff told CNN the lawsuit was prompted by some facet of state law that made it impossible to sue the insurance company directly, according to her lawyer. In Connecticut one must apparently sue the allegedly negligent child, win, and then use the judgment against the insurer. My guess is that law was written by an insurance company lobbyist, but I could be wrong.